You’d think I’d be for merit pay (DANGER:  The following paragraph is a pat-myself-on-the-back zone). I’m a hard-working, dedicated teacher.  I’m among the handful of teachers on my campus to arrive first every day—at least an hour before the first bell—and among the few to stay latest.  I turn graded papers around to my students overnight; it they hand them in on Monday, they have them back on Tuesday.  It’s a rare week that I don’t spend many hours in the evenings and on weekends in my classroom, grading and preparing (commonly 20 and more a week).  My student’s mandatory, high-stakes test scores are always in the high 90’s, and I’m assigned the students most in need of learning how to pass those tests.  I send out monthly e-mail newsletters to parents to keep them informed of what we’re doing, and I’m constantly in touch with parents of failing students.  I virtually always max my performance evaluations.  Why wouldn’t I—or anyone like me—be in favor of merit pay?  Surely I’d be getting it?

Not so fast, and don’t call me Shirley.  Merit pay isn’t an inherently bad idea.  Dangle more money before most people and they’ll become more productive and dedicated in order to earn it.  This is a common and rational practice in the world of business, and it works too.  When one is measuring quantifiable qualities or performances, it’s quite easy to determine who is selling more units, obtaining more, and more valuable clients, producing higher quality repairs, assembling more widgets to a higher level of reliability, etc.  Unfortunately, the world of business has little to do with education, yet politicians love to impose business models on the schools.

This is so in large part because the only people that can afford to be state legislators are businessmen, including lawyers, people that can afford to spend weeks away from their businesses to legislate.  They know business, business is tidy and orderly, and they just can’t see why the principles and models that work for them won’t work for education.

Before we plunge headfirst into this particular morass, those not familiar with the arguments, pro and con, for teacher merit pay, might want to click on this article on the Freakonomics site, which provides a balanced view of many pertinent issues. Alternately, simply Google “teacher merit pay,” and you’ll find much more information that you imagined existed.

I oppose merit pay primarily because good teaching is not easily—or easily accurately–quantified, and the devil is in the details.  Assume, for example, that what I wrote about myself in the first paragraph of this little missive is completely accurate.  Wouldn’t that seem to qualify me for merit pay?  If you answered “yes,” that demonstrates how little you know about contemporary education.  Keep in mind, please, that I’m talking about merit pay apart from union contracts, which essentially make merit pay impossible, primarily because the unions haven’t figured out a good way to get their “cut.”

Perhaps a few true examples will help to illustrate the practical problems involved.  I work for a good school district and in a very good high school.  Our state rankings are among the highest in the state for schools of any size, and by and large—no institution comprised of human beings is perfect–we have a harmonious, hard working faculty and solid, dedicated and capable principals that have their heads and hearts in the right places.  It’s a good place to work, and we have great kids, primarily because the adults are in charge of this particular asylum and we don’t allow the kids to be anything but good.

Years ago, our principal established “teacher of the month” awards, accompanied by small, but nice trophies (no money, of course!).  Silly me, I thought I’d be a shoe-in, but no such luck for the first year or so, until out of the blue one month, I received the “honor.”  I was surprised, because everyone receiving the thing prior to me received it for any and everything other than good teaching.  Mrs. Smith got one because she baked cookies for parent/teacher night.  Mrs. Brown got hers for being the prom sponsor, etc.

So I approached an assistant principal and told him that I was appreciative, but pointed out that from what I could tell, no one had ever before received the award for good teaching and asked why they would have given it to me.  After all, I didn’t do extra-curricular things like that, wasn’t particularly cute or peppy (in fact, I loath pep rallies) and couldn’t think of anything similar I might have done.  He told me that at the principal’s meeting where the subject came up, he nominated me because he thought I was a really good teacher!  Amazing!  He explained that the very idea of giving the award for actually teaching well was something they hadn’t considered(?!), but thought it might not be a bad thing to try, and so, I became the teacher of the month!  I eventually earned one more—not for good teaching—and a few months later, they gave up.  There have been no more teachers of the month, lo, these many years.  As I understand it, the principal got tired of people whining about who got it and who didn’t (perhaps there is a lesson in human nature in that). 

A friend teaches in a school district where they took a different approach.  They actually handed out merit pay, but based entirely on the performance of buildings—not individuals—on state measures of school performance.  As a high school teacher, she was in trouble.  In her state—and I suspect in most if not all—it’s much easier for elementary schools to attain high scores than high schools.

She was annoyed because one school in her small district had the great good fortune of being located in an attendance area that was entirely upper middle class—and higher– neighborhoods.  Anyone that believes such things don’t matter is engaging in debilitating self-delusion.  That faculty raked in merit pay year after year, merit pay amounting to as much as $2000.00 a year, merit pay in which she could never share.

I assure you that she was, without question, worthy of such pay, but could never earn it.  What particularly annoyed her was the fact that every teacher in that building shared in the spoils.  Their individual performance didn’t matter; what mattered was the grades their school received, so the weakest, least capable teacher earned as much as the hardest working, most effective teacher.

Only once in a decade did she see a penny, despite being one of the most competent, capable teachers I’ve ever known, and the following year, because one student in one sub group failed one test, her school slipped back out of merit pay contention.  The biggest problem, of course, was that each teacher’s ability, dedication and effort, had only the most peripheral effect on their individual outcome.  My friend didn’t begrudge those elementary teachers, she only wanted to know that she could earn extra pay based on her ability, dedication and hard work.  If she couldn’t, what was the point?  What indeed?

As I said earlier, the devil is in the details.  How do you quantify the unquantifiable?  Teaching, at its foundation, is the art and science of stimulating the growth of neural connections that improve the function of individual human brains.  Because music builds those connections in ways that math can’t, we study music.  Because math builds those connections in ways that studying English can’t, we study math, and so one.  The classical, well-rounded curriculum is based far more on biology and neurology than the production of immediately obvious practical abilities.  I may never use the algebra I was forced to master to obtain a bachelor’s degree, but my brain is more capable and flexible because I learned it, even though I can no longer perform many of the specific tasks I once did with ease.

If the distribution of merit pay is based on student performance, how will it be measured?  Mandatory, high stakes test scores?  The grade averages of a teacher’s classes?  If so, my merit pay would surely fluctuate from year to year, and some years, it would fluctuate wildly indeed. Some of my classes–by sheer chance–are simply far less academically capable than others.   And do we construct sliding scales to compensate for the respective disciplines?  As a teacher of English—a core academic discipline–I grade more papers and spend more of my personal time in preparation than the teachers of virtually any other discipline.  How would that compare with teachers that teach only elective courses, whose preparation and grading is a fraction of mine, and whose students are never subjected to mandatory, high stakes testing?

What about coaches?  In some schools, they’re expected to produce little or nothing off the court or field.  Should they receive merit pay based on their win/loss record?  Would that encourage favoritism and unethical methods?

Do we hand out such pay based on continuing education?  Does this mean that without a master’s or doctorate, no merit pay will be forthcoming?  If such things are required, who pays for those graduate hours and the texts and other expenses?  In my state and school district, it would not be economically sound for many to obtain a masters degree. The yearly difference in pay is so small as to make it an exercise in economic futility.  Does a masters—or even a doctorate—equal excellence in the ability to inspire others to build bigger, better brains, or is it possible for one to be an excellent teacher with only a bachelor’s degree?  I know more than my share of over-educated idiots?  You?

Who decides?  Will the awarding of merit pay be left to each building principal?  How much money will they control and what will be the limitations?  If, for example, George Washington Middle School, by chance, is literally packed with exceptional teachers, will everyone be given merit pay, or as is far more likely, will only a tiny percentage of those teachers qualify?

Budgets, not good intentions, will surely be the primary factor here.

Think, gentle educator readers, about teacher of the year awards.  What percentage of those receiving those awards are truly excellent teachers?  What percentage are simply well known and/or high profile people because of their extracurricular activities, or because of their social position in the community?  To what degree are such awards popularity contests?  Twenty percent?  Fifty?  At what level does the awarding of those “honors” stop being an incentive to excellence (if indeed this is true at all) and instead, have the opposite effect?

And here’s the best part: continuity.  If I earn an extra $2000.00 this year, will I earn it again next year?  Less?  More?  None at all?  Is merit pay to be a bonus, handed out only in times of plenty, or is it to be a permanent addition to a teacher’s pay and benefit package, something one may rely upon, money one might consider solid when purchasing a new car or home?  I suspect we all know the answer to that: it will, of necessity, be a bonus, as ephemeral as the life span of insects.  This will be an incentive to continuing excellence?

Gentle readers, excellent teachers are self-motivated far beyond anything educrats can dream up to motivate them.  Their motivation is inspiring the growth about which I’ve written.  It is seeing epiphanies, those fleeting light bulb moments, the sudden bursts of insight and understanding that herald growth and accomplishment.  Having students who could have cared less about doing well in their writing at the beginning of the year, grinning with pride over an “A” the second semester as they display it for their classmates is truly priceless.

If my principal wanted to reward me, there are several things they could do—right this minute and at no cost—that would do the trick.  In fact, it would probably save an enormous amount of money.  A partial list:

(1) Quit taking away my class time for any and every—or no real—reason.

(2) Don’t mandate the posting of idiotic slogans and mantras in my classroom.

(3) Instead of wasting huge amounts of money on in-service sessions, let my colleagues and I trade ideas (if we’re actually good teachers, we’re commonly far too busy to do that otherwise).

(4) Stop “benchmark” testing entirely.  It wastes huge amounts of my time and is of no benefit to my students.

(5) Actually spend real and regular time in my classroom seeing what I’m doing and talking with me about my ideas and methods.

(6) Relieve me from the mandatory production of data.

(7) Remember that the school exists to provide the best possible educational opportunity for the kids, and I’m one of the people that actually does that.  That—nothing else—is our shared mission.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t entirely oppose merit pay, I’ve just never seen a system that has a prayer of living up to its supposed reasons for existing and to its promise of inspiring excellence.  Understanding human nature as I do, I suspect it may remain eternally elusive.

What, gentle readers, do you think?